April 28, 2015

Since Qatar was declared as the host country for the 2022 World Cup by the world’s football authority FIFA, the difficulties and abuses faced by the migrant workers of the nation, which accounts for the two-thirds of the total population, have upset people around the globe. Human rights activists have widely protested against the decision of FIFA, as they believed that the largest party of the world should not come at the cost of the abuse of labour and human rights violations. The allegations of Sherpa, a non-governmental organization that is committed to defend the rights of the victims of economic crimes, urged French prosecutors to launch a primarily investigation into the French construction company, Vinci, whose subsidiary in Qatar, QDVC, has been building the major venues for the 2022 World Cup. Sherpa has filed a claim against Vinci for “concealment, forced labour, and servitude.” The French investigation against a major Western company that has involved in many dubious projects in the Gulf countries was a sign of hope for many who demand an end to the grim abuse of workers. It is also regarded as a harbinger of future investigations into other large projects taking place in the Gulf countries, such as the construction of the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums in the United Arab Emirates.

Vinci has rejected the accusations and claimed that its workers have always been provided with decent working conditions and salaries. The company has also sued Sherpa for defamation. Vinci is an international construction giant which has annual revenue of forty billion euros and 191.000 employees worldwide. Besides the construction of major buildings for the world cup, the company has also been granted the contracts of a tramway and metro system in Qatar through its local subsidiary QDVC.

Sherpa has announced on its website that more than a million of migrant workers, who come from the Philippines, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh on the prospect of a substantial salary, find nothing but death as a result of their terrible working conditions in which they risk their lives on a daily basis in huge infrastructure projects for a pittance. “This currently takes place in Qatar, the richest country in the world, on building projects for the 2022 World Cup.” Sherpa also claims the passports of the workers are confiscated, and workers are threatened with dismissal when they claim their right to better working conditions and housing, or when they wish to change their employers or simply resign.

The NGO alleges that Vinci, in its projects in Qatar, uses forced labour: “Modern slavery does not consist of shackling and whipping workers. It is subtler; the penal code defines a vulnerable population, under the threat of an employer and extreme economic dependency, as having no choice but to accept the deplorable working conditions and therefore renew its contract.”

Le Figaro newspaper in the early April conducted an interview with Xavier Huillard, the CEO of Vinci, who admitted that they indeed kept the passports of workers, but not by force: “The holders gave them to us voluntarily, signing a consent form in their own language, to avoid the risk of them being stolen or destroyed. They could, of course, have them back at any time.” He also said the company employed “thousands of workers from Nepal, Sri Lanka and India … who live in conditions that are of the highest standard.”

Migrant workers, who form the sixty eight percent of Qatar’s 2.2 million population, work under dire conditions. Qatar, a country that has long been accused of forced labour and human rights violations, was heavily criticized when a data revealing the fatality rate of workers was released. According to the data, revealed in December, Nepalese construction workers who build the 2022 World Cup facilities have been dying at the rate of one every two days in 2014 due to dreadful working conditions. Nepalese authorities declared that only between January and mid-November, 188 Nepalese workers died in Qatar. The deaths are believed to occur due to the mandatory long shifts in the scorching heat of Qatar. It is also important to note that the data does not include the deaths of Indian, Sri Lankan, and Bangladeshi workers. For this reason, it is widely speculated that the death rate of migrant workers in Qatar could be much higher than a person per day.

The investigation into Vinci has stirred hope amongst NGOs and human rights activists, as it indicates that the Western companies which exploit workers with impunity in the countries where human rights are not respected could be brought to justice in their home countries.